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Six Dynasties Period (220 – 589)

       The Six Dynasties period is a collective term referring to the Three Kingdoms period (220–280), Jin Dynasty (265–420), and Southern and Northern Dynasties period (420–589). The breakdown of the Confucian system after the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) was reflected in painting and painting theory: increasingly, Daoist and Buddhist themes and theoretical reasons for painting were emphasized. This period saw the first activity by the courtier and scholar class, who painted as amateurs and who were far better remembered in the written record of the art than were their professional, artisan-class counterparts. Among the first named painting masters, Cao Buxing (曹不興, 3rd c.) and Dai Kui (戴逵, ca. 326-396) painted chiefly Buddhist and Daoist subjects. Dai Kui was noted as a poet, painter, and musician and was one of the first to establish the tradition of scholarly amateur painting. He was also the leading sculptor of his day, which was rare in Chinese history of a gentleman who engaged in this craft.

       The greatest painter at the southern court in this period was Gu Kaizhi (顧愷之, ca. 344-406), an amateur painter from a family of distinguished scholar-officials in Nanjing and an eccentric member of a Daoist sect. One of the most famous of his works (which survives in a Tang dynasty copy in the British Museum) illustrates a 3rd-century didactic text Nüshizhen (Admonitions of the Court Instructress) by Zhang Hua. In this handscroll, narrative illustration is bound strictly to the text (as if used as a mnemonic device): the advice to imperial concubines to bear sons to the emperor, for instance, is accompanied by a delightful family group. The figures are slender and fairylike, and the line is fine and flows rhythmically. The roots of this elegant southern style, which then epitomized the highest Nanjing court standard, can be traced back to Changsha in the late Zhou (1046–256 BC)–early Han period, and it was later adopted as court style by the Northern Wei rulers (e.g., at Longmen) when they moved south to Luoyang in 495. Gu Kaizhi also was noted as a portraitist, and, among Buddhist subjects, his rendering of the sage Vimalakirti became a model for later painters.

       The south saw few major painters in the 5th century, but the settled reign of Wudi in the 6th produced a number of notable figures, among them Zhang Sengyao (張僧繇), who was commissioned by the pious emperor to decorate the walls of Buddhist temples in Nanjing. All his work is lost, but his style, from early accounts and later copies, seems to have combined realism with a new freedom in the use of the brush, employing dots and dashing strokes very different from the fine precision of Gu Kaizhi. He also painted “flowers in relief” on the temple walls, which were much admired. Whether the effect of relief was produced by chiaroscuro or by the thickness of the pigment itself is not known.

       Painters in northern China were chiefly occupied in Buddhist fresco painting (painting on a freshly plastered wall). While all the temples of the period have been destroyed, a quantity of wall painting survives at Dunhuang in northwestern Gansu in the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, Qianfodong, where there are nearly 500 cave shrines and niches dating from the 5th century onward. There are also wall paintings in the caves of Maijishan and Bingling Temple. Early Dunhuang paintings chiefly depict incidents in the life of the Buddha, the Jatakas (stories of his previous incarnations), and such simple themes as the perils from which Avalokiteshvara (Chinese Guanyin) saves the faithful. In style they show a blend of Central Asian and Chinese techniques that reflects the mixed population of northern China at this time.

       Painters practicing foreign techniques were active at the northern courts in the 6th century. Cao Zhongda (曹仲達) painted, according to an early text, “after the manner of foreign countries” and was noted for closely clinging drapery that made his figures look as though they had been drenched in water. At the end of the 6th century, a painter from Khotan (Hotan), Weichi Bozhina, was active at the Sui court. A descendant of his, Weichi Yiseng, painted frescoes in the temples of Chang’an using a thick impasto (a thick application of pigment) and a brush line that was “tight and strong like bending iron or coiling wire.” Those foreign techniques caused much comment among the Chinese but seem to have been confined to Buddhist painting and were eventually abandoned.

       The beginning of aesthetic theory in China was another product of the spirit of inquiry and introspection that characterized these restless years. About AD 300 a long, passionate poem, Wen Fu (“Rhyme-prose on Literature”), was composed by Lu Ji (陸機, 261-303) on the subject of artistic creation.

       During the Southern Qi (479-502) and Liang (502-557) dynasties, critical works were written on literature and calligraphy. The Wenxin Diaolong (文心雕龍, Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons) by Liu Xie (劉勰, ca.465-520) has long remained China’s premier treatise on aesthetics. It offers insightful consideration of a wide range of chosen topics, beginning with a discussion of wen (文), or nature’s underlying pattern. Set forth as central to the mastery of artistic expression are the control of “wind” (feng 風, emotional vitality) and “bone” (gu 骨, structural organization).

       Also from this period, the painter Xie He (謝赫) compiled the earliest work on art theory that has survived in China, the Guhua Pinlu (古畫品錄, Classified Record of Painters of Former Times). In this work he grades 27 painters in three classes, prefacing his list with a short statement of six aesthetic principles by which painting should be judged. These are qiyun shengdong (氣韻生動, “spirit resonance, life-motion”), an enigmatic and much debated phrase that means that the painter should endow his work with life and movement through harmony with the spirit of nature; gufa yongbi (骨法用筆, “structural method in use of the brush”), referring to the structural power and tension of the brushstroke in both painting and calligraphy, through which the vital spirit is expressed; yingwu xianxing (應物象形, “fidelity to the object in portraying forms”); suilei fucai (隨類賦彩, conforming to kind in applying colors); jingying weizhi (經營位置, planning and design in placing and positioning); and chuanyi moxie (傳移模寫, transmission of ancient models by copying). The last principle seems to refer to the copying of ancient paintings both for technical training and as a means of preserving them and hence the tradition itself. Of the “six principles,” the first two are fundamental, for, unless the conventional forms are brought to life by the vitality of the brushwork, the painting has no real merit, however carefully it is executed; the latter principles imply that truth to nature and tradition also must be obtained for the first two to be achieved. The six principles of Xie He have become the cornerstone of Chinese aesthetic theory down through the centuries.

       The integration of spirituality and naturalism is similarly found in the short, profound Daoist text of the early 5th century, Huashanshui Xu (畫山水序, Preface on Landscape Painting, China’s first essay on the topic), attributed to Zong Bing (宗炳, 375-443). Zong suggests that if well-painted—that is, if both visually accurate and aesthetically compelling—a landscape painting can truly substitute for real nature, for, even though miniaturized, it can attract vital energy (qi) from the spirit-filled void (dao) just as its real, material counterpart does. This interplay between macrocosm and microcosm became a constant foundation of Chinese spiritual thought and aesthetics.